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SunTrust Banks staking out big claim in the Charleston region

Nov. 1, 2005
Charleston Post and Courier
By John P. McDermott
An Atlanta-based financial giant, dazzled by Charleston's rapid growth, is staking out a big claim in the three-county region.

SunTrust Banks Inc., which gained a sizable foothold in the Upstate last year through a big acquisition, said it is now turning its sights to the Lowcountry, where it plans to open 16 retail branches over the next three years.

As part of the multi-branch expansion, SunTrust said it will hire 100 workers to help it make inroads in what it described as "a high-growth" market.

"Expanding into Charleston is consistent with our long-standing focus on pursuing growth opportunities in economically vibrant, demographically strong markets that complement our current footprint," said Bill Reed, vice chairman.

The company, known in its hometown as Coca-Cola's bank, already has a mortgage office in downtown Charleston and a commercial lending unit on Daniel Island.

SunTrust said it is in the process of filing applications with regulators that would allow it to add retail branches offering a full range of consumer, business and investment-related financial services.

The company's move into the Lowcountry means it will be competing head-to-head for deposits, loans and other transactions with the three biggest players in the region, Bank of America, Wachovia and First Federal, as well as a number of smaller community banks.

"We look forward to being a larger part of the Charleston community and offering consumers and businesses an alternative when making their banking and financial decisions," Reed said in a written statement.

SunTrust is making its grand entrance in the Lowcountry as competition is heating up. In roughly the past year, about half a dozen banks have unveiled plans to enter the market. Most have headquarters elsewhere. Two are starting from scratch.

SunTrust's Charleston division will come under its Carolinas banking group, which covers more than 240 branches in the Tarheel and Palmetto states.

The company has 60 branches in South Carolina, mostly in the Upstate.

Along the coast, SunTrust operates four full-service locations in the Hilton Head Island area that it picked up through its $130 million purchase of Lighthouse Financial Services.

Chuck Perry, the top executive of SunTrust's South Carolina region, said the existing mortgage unit at 145 King St. will serve as the headquarters for the local operations. That location also will be expanded to include a full-service branch and other office space.

SunTrust hopes to open an undisclosed number of retail locations by mid-2006, although the exact timing will depend on the availability of sites, said spokesman Mike McCoy.

Area bankers have long suspected that Charleston was high on SunTrust's radar.

"We'd been asking them that question, and they kept saying no," said Hugh Lane, president of Charleston-based Bank of South Carolina. "I personally never believed them."

Lane said SunTrust's expansion plan is ambitious for a market this size. "What does surprise me is the magnitude of it, but that's what it's going to take to compete" with the established bigger banks, he said.

SunTrust's first major effort to set up shop in the Carolinas was in 2001, when it made a run at Winston-Salem-based Wachovia Corp. The financial giant was beat out of that deal by First Union Corp. of Charlotte.

At the time, a top SunTrust executive noted that his company viewed the Carolinas as "holes in the map" of its footprint. It started to plug those gaps last year, when it paid $7 billion to buy Memphis-based bank owner National Commerce Financial Corp., giving it about 50 branches in the Greenville area.

SunTrust Banks Inc.

--Headquarters: Atlanta

--Total assets: $172.4 billion*

--2004 revenue: $7.9 billion

--2004 profit: $1.6 billion

--Top executive: L. Phillip Humann, chairman and CEO

--Number of branches: 1,647

--Employees: 33,012

*As of Sept. 30
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